for its rich oil and vast farmland, Saskatchewan hides away a potential for a
thriving technological industry. Saskatoon, the province’s biggest city, is
quietly, but surely, beginning to transform itself into a tech hub.
In 2019 alone, Saskatchewan received nearly $100 million in venture capital investment, more than half of which went to Saskatoon-based tech companies. The tech sector is estimated to account for 2.5 per cent of all Saskatchewan businesses, adding about $2 billion in GDP to the provincial economy in 2017.
rapid growth is the result of demonstrated efforts, from the provincial
government to the young, vibrant community of ambitious self-starters. The Saskatchewan
tech scene went through huge changes in the past five years and there are still
more to come. The increased interest and investment in the provincial tech
ecosystem promise continued growth.
seems to be in Saskatchewan this really beautiful opportunity where we have
alignment across the board. Everyone is agreeing this is the right thing,” said
Alex Shimla, program director at Co.Labs.
is Saskatchewan’s first tech incubator and it provides all the tools necessary
to grow and scale a tech startup in the province. They are purpose-driven to
create a pipeline to funnel a technology from an idea to a million-dollar
business in under three years.
the last provinces to have a startup incubator, Saskatchewan is seeing a lot of
potential coming out of Co.Labs, which is less than three years old. Co.Labs
programs have benefited 85 companies, who have collectively raised more than
$6.2 million in equity investments and created more than 150 jobs.
existence of a centralized tech hub like Co.Labs signals increased support for
tech entrepreneurship in the province. The future of the sector seems bright,
but it has had its share of struggles. Five years ago, the Saskatchewan tech
ecosystem was mostly driven by individual excellence.
were all just incredible entrepreneurs who grinded incredibly hard and did it
independently and had to go outside of Saskatoon to make all those things
happen,” Shimla said. “If you asked any of them, there’s a lot of mistakes that
they made along the way that they feel [were] super easily avoidable.”
in 2015, Saskatchewan-based startups were struggling to access venture capital,
raising only $3 million by the end of the year. Innovation Saskatchewan, a
government agency with a focus on technology development and commercialization,
recognized the difficulties for tech firms to secure their first big customer
within the province.
Since then, Shimla says, “the
support systems for tech have increased dramatically around the momentum that’s
been built at Co.Labs and in the general ecosystem.”
On the policy level, the
provincial government has created initiatives to support tech startups with the
goal to triple the tech sector by 2030. These efforts help companies get a
financial headstart into their market.
The Made in Saskatchewan Technology
Program is designed to help Saskatchewan-based tech companies secure their
footing through a $10,000 procurement contract with the government. Having a
reference-worthy customer like the government is critical for new startups to
establish themselves in the market and attract investors.
The Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive was officially introduced in 2018-19 to attract investors to the province. This program offers investors a 45 per cent non-refundable tax credit when they put capital towards early-stage tech startups. The incentive helps ease the financial struggles for new companies by making investments in Saskatchewan companies much more appealing.
While benefiting from the government’s
province-wide efforts, Saskatoon also enjoys a growing sense of community and
support on the tech scene. Co.Labs, with funds from the government and interest
from the community, is creating visibility on what is happening in the
industry through regular community events.
“If a company is trying to
raise money, there’s likely going to be an investor in the room at those
events, there’s going to be students who are interested in the jobs … and
there’s gonna be people from government who are interested in creating policy
initiatives,” Shimla said.
Regular community events also
happen all over Saskatoon, hosted by every single tech company, with a high
turnout. This means that the entryway into the tech industry becomes easier for
students and recent graduates.
Tate Cao, a University of
Saskatchewan assistant professor and the La Borde Chair in Engineering
Entrepreneurship, points out that the easiest way for students to get a foot in
the tech space is to participate in these events and create a network of
“Be very observant looking for
those opportunities. And then be open and humble to ask for help,” Cao said.
“There is lots of help around [because] people love students and want to help
While there is an emphasis on
nurturing and helping students in the tech space, Shimla says one of the big
obstacles to the growth of the Saskatchewan tech industry is the gap between
the talent available and the number of job opportunities in the market.
The big question is, “can our
talent pipelines keep up with the growth of our companies?”
Cao comments that the reason
the number of graduates does not necessarily fulfill the needs for talent in
the rapidly growing industry is the disconnect between the level of experiences
needed and student’s lack thereof.
“What I see is sometimes there
is a gap between the graduates and then the position companies want to hire
for. Because oftentimes as companies grow, they need more experienced people,
where students as new graduates lack those experiences,” Cao said.
This leads to companies
seeking talents outside of the country, resulting in a natural diversification
of their workforce.
“Diversity increases top line
and bottom line performance of companies. When you have more diversity, you
have more success because you have more opinions in the room that aren’t just
saying the same thing,” Shimla said.
With these benefits, it is not about diversity to fill a quota — or a “measuring stick,” as Shimla puts it. Having more people with a wider variety of experiences and backgrounds gives those prospective employees, and their employers, a competitive advantage.
Still, local companies are
always looking inward to foster and invest in local talent. To support the
economic development of the province, the University of Saskatchewan is
focusing on boosting enrolment in computer science and engineering.
“Enrolment in the computer
science department has increased more than 70 per cent in recent years, but the
demand for graduates continues to outpace our graduation numbers in this
field,” reads the university’s 2020-21 Operations Forecast.
“The College of Arts and
Science is adopting a suite of strategies designed to further boost enrolment
through industry-aligned computer science program offerings.”
On the part of the College of
Engineering, besides goals to maximize employment outcomes through internships
and career services, they are also trying to bridge the gaps between skills and
In addition to course offerings
on product development, in collaboration with Edwards School of Business, the
College of Engineering has created the technology innovation certificate. The
certificate program gives students the business fundamentals to design and
commercialize technologically-innovative solutions.
“My long-term plan for the
next couple years is to establish more work with student groups and to create
more opportunities for extracurricular works. So [to] expose students to real
life situations and then learn from those opportunities,” Cao said. “We want
to set up more workshops and events for students to learn the necessary
Students themselves recognize
the importance of getting the experiences beyond the classroom. In February
2020, the engineering student body voted to implement the University of
Saskatchewan Engineering Students’ Fund.
The approval of the fund comes
with a mandatory $20 per term fee from each engineering undergraduate student
and an annual donation of $20,000 from the College of Engineering. The
engineering design teams and student groups will benefit from this fund
through easier access to funding for their activities.
Shimla notes the efforts from
the colleges in bringing technology into the curriculum as the university recognizes
the importance of preparing students for the future of technology-integrated
“We are working with the
university at the head of entrepreneurship levels at most colleges … to start
building a plan for how we teach these — not just entrepreneurship skills, but
these tech-based methodologies because tech is just gonna keep growing,”
It is an exciting time for the
Saskatoon tech scene as the pieces are coming together to build a structure
that is fostering and setting up our local companies on the path to huge
success. From the provincial government to the university to the community, we
are seeing a positive and focused messaging around the importance of technology
in the future of the province.
The global success of Solido Design
Automation, for example, looked like a one-off phenomenon for years. In 2005,
they set out to solve incredibly complicated problems in the semiconductor
niche and became hugely successful with global clients like Apple before being
acquired by multinational corporation Mentor Graphics.
As Saskatoon now has the space to share and rapidly transfer knowledge in the entrepreneurial scene, the methodology that Solido used for their fast growth has become repeatable. This is thanks to pioneers like Jeff Dyck, former vice-president of engineering at Solido and director of engineering at Mentor Graphics, who now sits on the board of Co.Labs. He is instrumental in guiding the development of the incubator as Saskatchewan’s tech focal point.
The city is growing as a tech hub. Even Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark called it a “Silicon Prairie,” referencing the global center for innovative technology companies in San Francisco. But to Shimla, Saskatoon should not aspire to mimic — we have our own special thing going on here.
“We’re different from
Vancouver. That’s a good thing. Vancouver is good at what it does, and that’s
great. But Saskatoon can be and should be fundamentally unique because we are,”
Our competitive advantage,
Shimla says, comes from the people — humble to a fault, hardworking and
obsessed with generating revenue by providing legitimate value.
Click to listen: Alex Shimla on Saskatoon's uniqueness
Focusing on adding values by
offering solutions to real problems is a good recipe for success. Cao says a
common misstep when people set out to make a business is to do the expensive
thing first, which is to develop the technology without asking where the
market is and whether people really need it.
“The amazing part about tech
is that it’s so broad. It’s ubiquitous market conditions because you can sell
to anyone, anywhere,” Shimla said, so long as you are solving a legitimate
So while fluctuating market conditions will affect the growth of the tech sector, in some sense, tech entrepreneurship is a safer career path than traditional jobs.
Click to listen: Tate Cao on risk and entrepreneurship
“If you look at the traditional sectors, now they’re suffering from all kinds of changes and losses of jobs,” Cao said.
Shimla contends, however, that
“what tech is doing isn’t actually coming in and supplanting those industries.”
They are adding value and helping diversify and innovate the economy.
“Every company is going to become
a tech company sometime in the next couple of decades,” Shimla said. “Too often
we think about these things as opposites, when really they’re all parts of the
The next five years are going to be the period of critical growth for the Saskatoon tech ecosystem. There will be challenges in terms of seeking and retaining talent, as well as securing reliably increasing capital investments. But the opportunities are abundant for students to make a meaningful difference.